Race, Dehumanization, and the NFL National Anthem Protests

Steve Utych

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began protesting during the national anthem prior to his team’s games to bring awareness to police brutality against Black Americans. Over time, many more athletes in the NFL joined Kaepernick in his protest, which drew both praise from advocates and scorn from opponents, including President Donald Trump. This activism served to effectively end Kaepernick’s career in the NFL, but it also served to catalyze protests for social justice among athletes across sports, creating a new wave of activism among professional athletes.

Importantly, much of the denigration of Kaepernick and other protesters used harsh, dehumanizing language. Dehumanizing language occurs when human beings are referred to as non-human entities – animals, vermin, disease, or inanimate objects. Dehumanization has long been a mark of truly disturbing acts throughout human history, including most incidents of genocide. Dehumanization has long predicted negative attitudes towards a host of marginalized groups in society. In this paper, I ask whether the effects of dehumanization, in the context of the NFL anthem protests, is moderated by the race of the protester.

Using two survey experiments, I vary both the language used by an opponent of the protests (dehumanizing the player vs. non-dehumanizing) along with the race of the player (White vs. Black). Across these experiments, I find little effects of dehumanization – when the dehumanized player is white. That is, dehumanizing language does not influence attitudes toward the protests any differently than negative language that is not dehumanizing.

When the dehumanized player is Black, however, an entirely different pattern emerges. Here, I find that dehumanization makes individuals less supportive of the protests. This suggests a racial divide in who can be dehumanized. When a white individual (someone not from a traditionally marginalized group) is dehumanized, it seems to have no effects, but when a Black individual is dehumanized, a pattern of increased hostility towards the dehumanized person emerges.

However, these results hold only among individuals who identify as non-Hispanic and white. When analyzing only people of color, these patterns do not hold – there is little evidence of racial disparity in the effects of dehumanization among these groups.

While this study focuses on racial disparities in the effects of dehumanizing language using the lens of the NFL anthem protests, there is reason to believe this has broader implications. It appears dehumanizing language can have powerful negative consequences, but only when applied to racial or ethnic minorities, or at the very least to one’s racial out-group. This demonstrates another area of American politics where racialization occurs. Given that dehumanization can have powerful, subversive, and reprehensible effects in society at large, it is important to consider how dehumanization can serve to further marginalize already marginalized groups in society.

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